Submitted to an essay competition in September 2016 – This was my first time writing such a personal essay and my first time submitting one to a competition. Of course, I didn’t win but the writing exercise was well worth the effort.
Prompt: Most dramatic change I have ever made
M is My Scarlet Letter (or is it?)
The tears crept down from my cheeks and fell onto the keyboard as I leaned over my laptop typing my resignation letter. I was quitting my job in academia one year away from making tenure at a university in the Midwest and following my husband to his new job in his dream location across the country to the West Coast. I was doing what any good wife would do or is at least expected to do.
You are so qualified, you’ll find another job in a heartbeat, some said. You’ll have so much time for yourself now, said a few others. No big deal.
Except, it WAS a big deal. It has been a little over a year since our move and I still do not have a paid job. And, all that time I was supposed to have for myself is not going to be mine for a long, long time.
What nobody knew when we left our home in Chicago and a security I had come to rely on was that I was in the first trimester of my second pregnancy. With the pregnancy and a 17-month-old, and later a newborn and a full-blown toddler in his terrible twos to look after, I had little time to actively look for jobs or enjoy all that time I was supposed to have to myself.
As you probably guessed by now, the most dramatic change I ever made in life was type that resignation letter and move cross country from Chicago to San Jose to follow someone else’s dream. Yes, that someone else is my husband but that does not make my own dreams any less significant. Nor does it diminish the fact that I have had to put my professional ambitions on hold for what seems like an unpredictable number of years.
As soon as I signed that letter, I went from having an enviable professional identity as a professor to exclusively having a societally disapproved “non-real job” identity as a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM). That signature on the resignation letter rewrote the contents of what my life’s story was supposed to be. For the immediate future at least, that signature has completely altered how I have come to see myself and how others see me. In hindsight, a major life change like this should not have unnerved me. I wasn’t new to the game of change. After all, when you are a brown-skinned Asian Indian immigrant woman living in the United States, change is just another name for life.
I moved to the US for higher education in 2001, a month before the tragedies of September 11. While this act of terrorism changed the terrain of the world sociopolitical scene, it also proved life altering for many brown-skinned people as we went about our everyday lives. As a 21-year-old graduate student who was “fresh off the boat”, I lived in my own little ethnic Indian enclave. Soon after this historic event, I saw people, my brown friends, scared to leave their homes. I saw a Sikh friend become completely clean-shaven against his religious values. I witnessed my male friends being “randomly” selected for secondary inspections at airports. I had expletives hurled at me and was told to go back to where I came from. Yet, these changes didn’t matter to me to the extent that my most recent one did.
I was married to a man I thought I was in love with for six years before getting divorced at 30. That same year, I completed my doctoral studies, graduated, got a new job, moved to a new city, and for the first time in my life, started living independently. At THIRTY! Yet, these changes didn’t matter to me to the extent that my most recent one did.
I fell in love again. This time I married a man who loves and respects me for who I was and am, and hopefully will continue to love the woman I will organically become, as we grow old together. We are an interreligious, interracial, and international couple both hailing from different countries. Finding new love and remarrying were big changes too but these changes didn’t matter to me to the extent that the most recent one did. Neither did either of my pregnancies.
I have often mulled over why resigning from one identity and gradually learning to embrace another one with the changes that ensued have caused me so much anguish. I have one theory.
As an immigrant, I have always felt a strong urge to make my existence in my adopted homeland matter. The sacrifices my family made for me to be able to afford an education in the US, the tug in our hearts every time we hung up our long distance phone calls, the familiarity of the life I gave up back home in India in order to achieve academic and career success in the US – all of this has got to mean something. It has got to stand for something. That something was having a professional identity of which I would be proud and of which my family would be proud.
I always wanted to be a teacher and being a professor was even better in that I got to teach, conduct research in areas I was passionate about, and contribute to a larger academic community. It was the most meaningful thing I was doing in my life and achieving tenure would have been the cherry on top of a very rich immigrant professional life experience.
By resigning, I was stealing that opportunity from myself. I was somehow not earning my keep as an immigrant. I was surrendering to the domesticity of life, a rich life too, but one that I did not want to subscribe to, exclusively.
Accepting and embracing the role of a SAHM is one of the on-going and most challenging things I have ever done in life. I never envisioned my life as a mother only. Of course, I am not just that even now. Still, it seems as though everything I do is somehow an extension of that role – whether it is writing my blog, looking up recipes and activities online, writing articles instead of research papers – every single one of them is related to motherhood.
Whereas previously when I left for work leaving my son in the safe and loving hands of his nanny, I was able to channel my professorial identity and embody that form; today, there is nowhere I can go without wearing the “M” badge – my very own scarlet letter. It shows in the extra weight I carry around my hips and breasts. It shows in the sometimes throw-up stained shirt or pants I wear. It shows in the comfortable flat shoes that have replaced heeled sandals. It shows in the physical aches and pains that have become my best friends since having kids.
But, you know what? It also shows in the way my son runs to me arms wide-open smiling huge and saying “Mommy, Mommy”. It shows when my sheer presence in the same room as her excites my daughter. It shows when I feel super-powerful carrying two heavy bags of groceries and a 28-pound toddler on my hip. It shows in my newly acquired confidence and calm as a second-time mom. It shows in all those moments of my life when my heart overflows with love and eyes with tears of joy just looking at my children and the family I have helped create.
On most days, I am able to simply shake off any regrets I may have about my decision to resign. The nostalgia for a life that might have been shows up on occasions when, for example, I read about former colleagues achieving new distinctions or making tenure, when I see innovative courses being taught in my areas of expertise, and when I am denied access to my local university’s online databases or review boards that approve research projects because I am not faculty. These are times when I wish I was right there in the midst of all the professional action while also being a mother, a working mother to my two kids instead of only donning the SAHM cape.
It may read like it but in case the point was lost, I am NOT saying I regret or resent being a mother although like most mothers (and fathers), SAHMs or not, I do have my “scream-into-a-pillow” “yell-at-the-Universe” moments. I am not angry with anybody. Nobody made me do this. I chose to follow my husband and be a SAHM so this is on me. I am not undermining SAHMs or privileging working moms. I am not talking about the so-called “Mommy Wars” or debating what kind of mother is better.
All I am saying is that signing that resignation letter and making this change from a professor to a SAHM has been the hardest, most challenging, most gratifying, and the most dramatic change I have ever had to make.